Month: February 2016

“What is the best credit card for people who like to travel?”

“What is the best credit card for people who like to travel?”

Well, the short answer is, it depends on your needs. However, one thing is for sure, and that it’s going to be a card directly issued by a bank, and not a co-branded airline card, as I explained earlier.

I’ve broken down the main ones into a few categories:

High annual fee, high benefits: Citi Prestige, American Express Platinum (the VISA Black Card also falls into this category, but I don’t know anyone with one, and it’s so terrible it’s not worth discussing).

The American Express Platinum has long been the gold standard of premium travel cards. And it’s easy to see why. With the card you get dedicated concierge service, a one-time Global Entry application fee credit,  a $200 per calendar year airline fee credit that can be used on most domestic airlines (it’s not supposed to be used on actual airfare but there are workarounds), access to their high-end Centurion lounge (plus two guests), Delta Sky Club lounge access when flying Delta, Priority Pass membership (which gives you access to 600+ airport lounges around the world), and many others that I won’t list here. On top of that, the points you earn from spending (though no bonus categories) go to the very useful Membership Rewards program, which you can transfer to a wide variety of partners.. Though it varies depending on the specific card (the Ameriprise one comes with no annual fee the first year), the annual fee is generally $450 per year, not waived. If the airline credit is used correctly, it brings it down to essentially $250 per year. Given the benefits, it’s not terrible.

However, my allegiances are with the Citi Prestige card. Like the Platinum, it has a fee of $450, dedicated concierge service (supposedly not quite as good), and a Global Entry credit. But not only does it have Priority Pass membership, but the membership comes with free access for up to two guests (the Platinum Priority Pass membership is $29 per guest). Unfortunately, Citi doesn’t have their own lounge like the Centurion Lounge, but it does allow access to American Airlines Admirals Clubs when flying American. But moreover, it also gives triple points for travel spending, and double points on dining and entertainment.

While their Thank You points program isn’t quite as valuable as Membership Rewards, it will still allow you to book award flights in Star Alliance (via Singapore Airlines), oneworld (via Qantas), and SkyTeam (via Flying Blue). Furthermore, your points are worth 1.3 cents when redeemed for airfare, and 1.6 cents when redeemed for American Airlines airfare. But best of all, the Citi Prestige gives you a $250 per calendar year airfare credit. There are no restrictions on its use; you just buy $250 or more of airline tickets in a year with the card and you’ll get $250 back. On top of that, if you have a Citigold checking account (which you can close later), the annual fee drops to $350. So if you do it right, you’re essentially getting all of the benefits I mentioned above for $100/year. Not a bad deal for a frequent traveler. I also didn’t even mention that there’s a buy three hotel nights get the fourth one free perk (which I haven’t taken advantage of, as I usually stay in hostels or airbnbs), as well as a free round of golf per year!

While the Platinum card may make more sense if you’re frequently flying out of airports with Centurion lounges, or if you’re a frequent Delta flyer, or if you value the Membership Rewards transfer partners far more, overall, the Citi Prestige wins out in my book. And given that it’s essentially a $100/year card if you do it right, I often feel it really competes with the cards in the next category.

 

Small fee, good airline rewards: Citi Premier, American Express Premier Rewards Gold, Chase Sapphire Preferred

If you’re getting the Citi Prestige for $100/year as I detailed above, there’s really no reason to get the Citi Premier, as it’s $95/year after the first year, without any of the great benefits. So it essentially comes down to the Chase Sapphire Preferred vs. American Express Premier Rewards Gold.

While it may be heresy to say so in the blogger community, if you can live without the plunk factor (the CSP is metal, the PRG is plastic), I honestly feel that the Premier Rewards Gold is a better choice. Both have no annual fee, but the Chase Sapphire Preferred is $95 after the first year, and the Premier Rewards Gold is $175 after the first year. However, it also comes with a yearly airline fee credit, which again, if used correctly, can be used for airfare, bringing the fee down to $75.

The PRG also offers slightly better bonus categories, offering triple points on airfare and double points on gas, dining, and supermarkets where as the CSP only offers double points on travel and dining. While United is a very important Ultimate Rewards transfer partner for booking Star Alliance flights (in addition to Singapore), Membership Rewards will let you transfer to Air Canada’s Aeroplan frequent flyer program in addition to Singapore  Airlines, as well as Delta, Virgin America, JetBlue, and Hawaiian. Though if you want Southwest points, the CSP might be better.

Small fee, good cash rewards: Capital One Venture, Barclaycard Arrival Plus (again, the US Bank Flex Perks Travel Rewards and Wells Fargo Propel cards also fall into this category, but aren’t really worth discussing).

Both of these cards give you a bonus of $400 after spending $3,000 in the first three months, both of these cards will give you 2% cash back on all purchases when you redeem them for travel, and both have no foreign transaction fees. There aren’t many differences, but there are a few: For one, it’s generally easier to get approved for Capital One cards, though they will pull your credit report from all three bureaus. The Barclaycard card is also the only card that has chip and pin technology (most only have chip), which can be useful in Europe. It also gives you back 5% on all your redemptions. Notably, you can redeem your rewards for cash back at any time with the Venture card, whereas the Arrival card requires you to redeem in quantities of at least $25.

They both have the annual fee waived the first year, and Capital One assesses a $59 fee the next year, whereas Barclaycard’s is $89. However, Capital One will almost always waive this fee if you call them, whereas Barclaycard rarely does this. For this reason alone, if you have to choose just one, you’ll probably get more value out of the Capital One Venture over the long-term, though this could change based on your needs.

No fee: Capital One Venture One, Barclaycard Arrival, Bank of America Travel Rewards, Discover IT Miles. The Venture One and Arrival are identical to the cards described above, except that they both have no annual fee, signup bonuses of $200, and the Venture One is 1.25% cash back, and the Arrival is 2% cash back on travel and dining, and 1% for everything else. In this category, unless more than half your spending is on travel and dining, you’re probably better off going with the Bank of America Travel Rewards card, as it has the same high signup bonus $200, and a flat 1.5% cash back. on everything, and still no foreign transaction fees. The Discover IT Miles also offers a flat 1.5% cash back on everything as well as no foreign transaction fees, but there is no signup bonus, not to mention Discover has limited acceptance outside the US, so it’s hard to recommend it as a travel card (though there are some other good uses). The $30/year in-flight wi-fi credit is nice, though.

Of course, for maximum benefit, you’re best getting all of them, so you can make nice pretty pictures of airlines with your credit cards, as I did in the top image.

Have a question about something? Feel free to post in the comments below or e-mail me.

 

 

The 10 things to know before taking a cross-country train trip

The 10 things to know before taking a cross-country train trip

In my last post, I detailed how one can use Amtrak Guest Reward points to take an Amtrak trip across the country for free, as I did last summer from the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston.

It was an amazing experience, though I’m not sure I’d do it again. If I were though, there are a few things that I would do differently, as well as a few things that worked out well for me.

Fair warning, my camera was nearing the end of its days on this trip, hence the low-quality photos.

1. Expect delays. And lots of them. Due to mandatory rules about crew rest, if your train arrives late the night before, it might depart late the next day to allow the crew to get enough sleep. This is what happened to me, as my train departed 2.5 hours late. And unlike planes, trains can’t “make up time.” So if you leave 2.5 hours late, then add 2.5 hours to your arrival time.

But that’s not the only delay. Amtrak doesn’t own most of the tracks it runs on (especially west of Chicago), and therefore has to defer to freight trains when on single tracks. This happens a lot, and you will be sitting still looking out at the cornfields of somewhere like Iowa, like this:

 

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The bottom line is, only do this trip if you have a significant time cushion built in. My itinerary had an eight-hour layover in Chicago, but we arrived 11 hours late, meaning that I missed the once-a-day connecting train to Boston. Instead, I had a 21-hour layover (they paid for my lodging and meals), and while I had fun exploring Chicago, I ended up arriving in Boston more than 24 hours after I was scheduled to.

2. Plan your food/drink accordingly.Yes, there are hot meals served on Amtrak. And they’re surprisingly good. However, they’re not cheap, nor are they incredible. I would maybe recommend doing one for the experience. You can also bring your own food, but remember that there is no refrigeration on board. If you want to ensure that you’ll be eating hot food and not spending too much, research your layovers in advance, as there tends to be at least one restaurant near most major stations.

However, this will require somes advance planning: I saw that I had a 10-minute stop in Grand Junction, CO and located a restaurant adjacent to the station using Yelp, called them an hour in advance to place a takeout order, sprinted in to get it as soon as we pulled in, and then sprinted back on to the train with a few minutes to spare. Having a hot meal of eggs, green chiles, and homefries was a welcome change from the cold bahn mi sandwiches I had brought.

Amtrak does sell snacks and drinks (including alcohol) on board, but given that it doesn’t cost you anything to bring these yourself, you’ll save a lot of money (though if you need your beer to be cold, it might be better to buy on board). Of course, you’ll want to not go overboard on the alcohol, because it’s also important to…

3. Behave yourself. Just like on a plane, the staff is not afraid to kick you off if you’re not behaving. While I don’t think this is an issues for most readers of this blog, there was a man on our train who had a bit too much to drink, and started to get verbally abusive to his girlfriend. The train had no problems making an emergency stop in a remote town in Colorado, where he was met by police. I don’t know what happened to him, but even if he got a second chance, it means he had to wait 24 hours for the next train to arrive, as the California Zephyr is a once-daily route.

trip 2937

4. Don’t spring for the sleeper cabins; the coach seats are perfectly fine. If you can relate to the princess from “The Princess and the Pea”, then this might not apply. Otherwise, I slept fine most nights, and I’m 6’7.” The leg room is more than ample, and the seats recline quite a bit (though not 180 degrees). Obviously you’ll want to bring a sleeping bag and/or blanket, however.

5. Bring cards, games, or something to engage other people on the train. While you’ll most likely spend daylight observing the beautiful scenery, and nighttime asleep, there is a period of roughly four hours (depending on what time of year you go) where it’s too dark to look at the views, but too early to go to bed. Especially if you’re a solo traveler, this can be a fun way too meet other people and pass the time. My first night, I played “Cards Against Humanity” well into the night with three people I’d never met

6. Get a good data plan (or do a digital detox). While Amtrak is starting to roll out WiFi on 2=shorter routes, especially those frequented by business travelers, they still don’t have it on the long-distance routes. If you’re just looking to do some writing, you’ll be fine, as they have plenty of outlets, but if you need to do work requiring the internet, it will be very expensive to tether to your phone’s data plan. Or, you can just take a break from the internet and enjoy the views.

7. Spend most of your day in the observation car. The observation car is a car with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that allow for much more expansive views of the landscape than a coach seat, as I documented in a short video I took:

But seriously, you’ll see all sorts of great stuff:

It’s open seating, and conversation is encouraged, unlike the coach cars where people are expected to keep the noise down. However, it is not for sleeping, and you will get a stern warning for doing this (whether you mean to or not), and be asked to leave the car if caught again. But don’t take it as an invitation to put on your headphones and tune out, because you’ll also want to…

8. Learn. While this varies route to route, Amtrak has a variety of educational programs on board to help you learn about the route. On the California Zephyr, there are guides from the California Museum in Sacramento that stay on board between Sacramento and Reno to educate you about how this section of the route came to be, including the incredible hard work of the many Chinese immigrant laborers who helped build the track through the mountains, which was invaluable for shipping goods between the coasts.

There are also people from the National Park Service between Grand Junction and Denver who talk about the Colorado portion of the route, telling us how some of the highways on the way were among the last of the entire interstate highway system to be completed due to the difficulty of snaking around large canyons, and other interesting tidbits.

9. Know your breaks and stops. Definitely pick up a paper copy of the schedule beforehand. While the actual arrival times will become useless after the first delay, they still are useful for knowing how long it takes to get between two different stations, as well as when there are extended stops (such as for 20-30 minutes, when you can get off and walk around the area for a bit. However, most of them tend to be either in areas with not many places to see, or are in places with lots to see, but in the middle of the night.

It is also important to listen for which stops are “cigarette breaks”, meaning that it’s OK to get off the train for a few minutes and get some air and smoke (if you like), versus stops where only departing passengers are expected to get off. As I mentioned earlier, the California Zephyr is a once-a-day route, and other long-distance routes run with similar frequency, so it’s critically important to get back on in time.

10. Take advantage of the generous baggage policy. Unlike the airlines, Amtrak has a very generous checked bag policy, allowing you to check up to two bags for free, and two more for $20 each. On top of that, they don’t really have a policy restricting carry-ons. While I’m sure others have pushed it further, I stuffed my already-full giant travel backpack with a trombone and bass guitar sticking far out of the top, and no one seemed to care. Obviously, if you’re just doing this as a fun trip, you won’t come close to exceeding their checked bag limits, but if you’re doing a big move, like I was, it’s a much cheaper way of getting your stuff across the country than shipping it.

 

Have your own long-distance Amtrak story to share (either good or bad)? Did I miss something? Feel free to post in the comments below, or e-mail me.

Forget $213, take Amtrak across the US for free!

Forget $213, take Amtrak across the US for free!

Last July, I fulfilled a lifelong goal of mine by taking the Amtrak from Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) to Boston over five days (though it was supposed to be four), completing my journey back to my hometown of Boston from San Francisco, where I had the spent the past seven years. It was an absolutely amazing trip (which I’ll get to in a future post), but best of all, it was totally free.

A little later after I was done with my trip, a blog post went viral about how to go across the USA for $213, which was frequently shared by many of my friends on Facebook, to which I would furiously comment that it could be done for free, but with no avail.

As this blog is called Wicked Cheap Travel, not Wicked Cheap Flights, I wanted to use this post to talk about how to travel for free on Amtrak using Amtrak Guest Rewards.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

Like other airlines, hotels, and car rental companies, Amtrak also has its own loyalty program called Amtrak Guest Rewards. And like the majority of domestic airlines today (unfortunately), you can earn points based on the cost of your ticket (rather than distance traveled), at two points per dollar spent, with a 25% bonus for business class tickets and 50% bonus for Acela first class.

Redeeming points for reward tickets is also fairly straightforward. One Guest Reward point is worth roughly 2.9 cents, meaning you could get a $29 ticket (not unheard of for short distances outside of the East Coast, like Emeryville, CA to Davis, CA) for 1,000 points. And on top of that, if you take your first trip within 90 days of signing up for the program, you get a 500-point bonus!

So in order to take that $213 trip for free, all you need is 7,345 Amtrak Guest Reward points, or to spend $3,422.50 on Amtrak coach tickets (assuming you get the 500-point bonus). However, unless you’re a consultant on the East Coast who’s always on the road, you might not spend that much on Amtrak in your entire life.

This is where the magic of credit card points and bonuses comes in.

Using credit card(s) to get (a lot) more points

Last year, Amtrak switched its credit card partner from Chase to Bank of America, which offers two Amtrak co-branded credit cards: one with a 20,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days and an annual fee of $79 (as well as three points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, two on other travel, and one for other purchases), and one with a 12,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days but no annual fee (as well as two points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, and one for other purchases).

If you’re a frequent Amtrak rider who plans on using this as their primary card, it might not be bad to get the one with the annual fee, as it’s essentially a 3%+ cash back card when used on Amtrak (you also get 5% of your points back when redeeming), and it also gives you one club pass and one upgrade pass per year, as well as a fast-track to earning elite status.

But for most of you who aren’t hardcore Amtrak riders, the no annual fee one is probably the one worth considering; given that the signup bonus is worth over $350, it’s very rare to see a signup bonus this high before any card without an annual fee. After you spend $1,000, you could put it in your drawer by your bed and never have to use it again, and you’ll be 13,000 Amtrak points richer (assuming none of the $1,000 you spend to hit the bonus is on Amtrak). Of course, you shouldn’t get rid of it so that you can still build your length of credit to improve your credit score, as I discussed earlier.

Booking the Trip

This used to be a much more complicated process, but at the end of last year, Amtrak revamped their loyalty program and website to make it far easier. After you go to the Amtrak homepage, type in where you’re coming from, and going to, and the date. You’ll then get a page like this:

amtrk

 

I haven’t figured out how Amtrak chooses the order it displays trips in, but for some reason, it chooses to display the most expensive ones requiring the most amount of transfers first. Select “POINTS” and scroll down until you find the one you want. As you can see here, this trip cost $231 normally, but just over 8,000 points!

amt

The route above is the exact one I took last year, and it was everything I hoped for (the featured image in the post is a photo I took while passing through the red rocks of Utah), though it for sure was not without faults. As I mentioned earlier, I plan on putting this in a separate blog post that should hopefully be coming soon.

“I don’t want to open up another credit card, is there another way I can earn lots of Amtrak points if I’m not planning on spending a lot of money on Amtrak travel?”

Yes, though it may not be a good idea. Amtrak has a wide variety of earning partners, such as rental cars and hotels, though for almost all of them, you’re better off not crediting points to Amtrak, unless your primary travel goal is free Amtrak travel (you can even earn Amtrak points for United flights if you fly in/out of Newark and connect with Amtrak, but again, probably not a very good idea).

However, if you have more Starpoints (earned through staying at Starwood hotels) than you know what to do with, not only am I very jealous of you, but you can transfer them in 5,000-point increments to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account. But given Starpoints’ ability to be transferred 1:1 to nearly every major frequent flyer program, this isn’t a great use of them, as I would much rather transfer them to Alaska Airlines MileagePlan to book award flights on Emirates (which I’ll address later).

 

Did I miss something? Have your own Amtrak Guest Rewards experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments below, or e-mail me.

 

 

Why your primary credit card (probably) shouldn’t be an airline credit card

Why your primary credit card (probably) shouldn’t be an airline credit card

Co-branded airline credit cards seem to be all the rage these days, as airlines promote them very heavily, and so do many bloggers. For those of you who don’t know, a co-branded airline credit card is one where a bank (such as Chase) partners with an airline (such as United) to offer a credit card that can be used anywhere (different from a store card which can only be used at certain merchants), and instead of receiving cash back like one might on a traditional card, they receive airline miles, usually 1 mile per dollar spent, with bonus miles on airline purchases.

Now, it’s easy to see why this is an attractive proposition. While it’s hard to place an exact value on airline miles (since an award flight on United that cost 25,000 miles to book may cost $300 to book as a paid fare, or $500 to book as a paid fare), a conservative estimate is generally 1.5 cents per mile, effectively giving you 1.5% cash back (for frequent flyer programs like Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America, it’s a little easier to calculate the value of miles since they correspond directly with the cost of the flight, i.e. if a flight costs twice as much in dollars, it will cost twice as much in miles).

So what’s the problem? Well, your primary credit card (assuming you’re not trying to meet the minimum spending bonus) should be one that gives you lots of opportunities where you can earn bonus points or miles. But with a few exceptions, most airline credit cards will only give you bonus miles for purchases with the airline. Unless you’re constantly on the road for work, it’s unlikely that most of your spending will be with an airline (and even if it is, it’s probably on the corporate credit card).

So how can you earn miles while still taking advantage of bonus categories? Thankfully, several of the big credit card companies allow you to earn points directly with them in a variety of categories that will allow you to then transfer those points (often at a 1:1 ratio) to many leading frequent flyer programs.

A classic example is the United MileagePlus Explorer Card vs. the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The former gives you double miles on all United purchases and 1 mile for every dollar spent on other purchases. The latter gives you double points on all dining and travel purchases (including United purchases), and 1 point for everything else. These points can then be transferred 1:1 into your United account (or a number of other accounts). The annual fees ($95 after first year) and signup bonus (50,000) are identical.

To put this into perspective, if you spend $12,000 in a year, $3,000 of which is on dining or travel (with a $500 purchase on United), then you would earn 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which you could then transfer into 15,000 United miles if you wanted to, but you’d also have the flexibility to convert them into 15,000 Southwest miles (or British Airways miles, or a number of other programs). If you spent that same $12,000 in a year, then you’d earn 12,500 United miles. It isn’t hard to see why cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a better bet.

Of course, that doesn’t mean airline credit card should be ignored. They’re great for boosting your mileage accounts with their often-generous signup bonuses (I’ve received over 500,000 miles in signup bonuses on airline credit cards), and if you regularly check bags, they tend to allow you to waive checked bag fees for you and a partner, which could save $100 or so on a round trip. Another common benefit is priority boarding. Furthermore, as long as you have one open, it means your miles will never expire (though there are other ways to extend the life of your miles. They also sometimes will come with companion passes. In other words, feel free utilize airline cards for their perks, just don’t put any more spending on them after you hit the bonus.

Below, I’ll run through some of the more popular airlines and their cards, explaining other cards which will get you more miles, but why the airline’s credit card still could be useful to have:

United: As I mentioned earlier, the Chase Sapphire Preferred will give you double points on travel and dining, which can then be converted to United miles. However, the United MileagePlus Explorer is probably one of the better airline cards out there, as in addition to the generous signup bonus (50,000) it can give you access to more award seats and two lounge passes a year.

(The card featured in the image is indeed a real card, which I put $2,000 on to meet the requirements to earn 50,000 miles plus a $50 statement credit, and plan on never using again).

American: American is a bit trickier, as none of the major credit card programs (Citi ThankYou, Chase Ultimate Rewards, AMEX Membership Rewards) allow you to transfer points to American. However, you can transfer from a Starwood Preferred Guest account, which is extremely valuable because of the wide range of partners you can transfer to from it, and you can get a 25,000-point signup bonus with their co-branded AMEX card (though the impacts of the upcoming merger with Marriott are unclear). Of course, American does have some good co-branded cards, and the Platinum World Elite, in addition to a 50,000-mile signup bonus, will also give you 10% off award flights (from time to time you might also see a 100,000-point bonus for the Executive version of the card, which has a $450 fee but gives you access to the Admiral lounges).

Delta: The AMEX Premier Rewards Gold card earns bonus points in number of different categories like travel and groceries, and allows you to transfer points at a 1:1 ratio into your Delta frequent flyer account. The standard Delta co-branded card (Gold Rewards) occasionally offers 50,000-point signup bonuses, but doesn’t really offer much else beyond the standard priority boarding and free checked bag.

Southwest: The Chase Sapphire Preferred mentioned above will also allow you to transfer your points at a 1:1 ratio to Southwest. That being said, both Southwest cards do give you an anniversary bonus after payment of the annual fee, and can be a good way to work toward the companion pass, not to mention it often offers signup bonuses as high as 50,000 points, about $625 in travel.

JetBlue: Again, the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold card will allow you to transfer JetBlue points though at a 5:4 ratio (e.g 50,000 Membership Rewards points equals 40,000 TrueBlue points). There currently is no JetBlue card to apply for, as it is being transitioned from American Express to Barclaycard.

Virgin America: And yet again, the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold card will allow you to transfer points, though at a 2:1 ratio (though if you transfer by March 10, it goes up to a 4:3 ratio). If you have the Citi Premier or Citi Prestige card, you can also transfer ThankYou points at a 2:1 ratio also, both of which have good bonus categories on travel and entertainment. While 2:1 may sound like a bad deal initially, given how valuable Virgin America points are (roughly worth a little over 2 cents each), it’s actually not that bad in reality. Of course, given how valuable they are, if your main goal is to accumulate Virgin America Elevate points, their co-branded VISA card with Comenity may not be a bad option, other than the fact that Comenity is by far the single-worst issuer I’ve ever dealt with.

Alaska: Similarly to American, the only way to transfer in miles to your Alaska account at a 1:1 ratio is through Starwood Preferred Guest, which I would again recommend over the Alaska Airlines co-branded card for the flexibility. That being said, the Bank of America Alaska card is a nice way to get a quick 25,000 miles, as there is no minimum spending bonus, though the annual fee of $89 is not waived the first year. There is also a good deal for a companion certificate with this card.

Hawaiian: I’ve never seen anyone besides myself with the Hawaiian Airlines co-branded card, but just in case you’re thinking about it, you’ll again do better transferring in points from the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold card. The 35,000-mile signup bonus on the co-branded card is still a nice way to get a free roundtrip flight to Hawaii from the West Coast, not to mention there are companion certificate benefits too, though the annual fee is not waived the first year.

Spirit: Other than flying Spirit, there’s no other practical way to earn additional Free Spirit miles besides the Spirit Airlines credit card. But if your primary goal is to accumulate miles to use on Spirit, I question your life choices.

 

Did I miss something? Have a question about something? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

What to do on a getaway to Guadeloupe

What to do on a getaway to Guadeloupe

Last month I took advantage of Norwegian’s insanely cheap fares from Boston to book a quick getaway to Guadeloupe with a friend. Given that I know some readers have already booked trips since seeing the last post, I figured I’d do a short write-up. As we were only there for three nights due to both budgetary and time reasons,A this is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of everything on the island, but rather a run-down of a few highlights as well as key tips.

 

Go diving/snorkeling

Guadeloupe has some of the best diving in the Caribbean, including Îlets Pigeon (Pigeon Island, pictured above), famous for the Jacques Cousteau underwater reserve. Unfortunately my underwater camera couldn’t handle the depths I was diving at, but I can say firsthand that the fish were great (especially if you like parrotfish), and the coral was even more beautiful. There is even a great little bust of Cousteau himself at the bottom.

If you’re looking to get certified (or already are) with PADI (the most widely recognized SCUBA organization), then I highly recommend coordinating with Atlantis Formation, which offers three dives per day at 50 euros each (including equipment rentals). They even give you free (alcoholic) punch when you’re done, and we got to enjoy a local marching band:

Eat street food

Make sure to check out at least one night market. There is one in Le Gosier city center every Friday, and other cities also tend to have weekly ones on other nights.

market

A popular local snack are accras, deep-fried balls of local fish (similar to a hush puppy):

accra

Even after (correctly) translating “boket” to “bucket” using my Haitian-Creole translator, I still wasn’t sure what this was, but I ordered it anyway. Turns out “bucket” is like a pita pocket sandwich, where the bread acts as a literal bucket for the filling! Try to go somewhere where they are making the bread fresh to order.

bucket

Of course, this is France, so you shouldn’t leave without having at least one crepe:

crepe

There is another vendor there who is a bit of a local legend for her version of a crepe that uses cassava instead of the traditional flour-based batter:

cassava

Another vendor at the night market was selling the best coconut ice cream of my life, fresh from his old-fashioned ice cream maker:

ice

There will be vendors selling freshly cracked coconut water all along the street, and these are definitely worth stopping for. You can get a giant waterbottle’s worth for just 4 euros, which will be extremely refreshing.

coco

 

Go to botanical gardens

The Jardin Botanique de Guadeloupe is famous for a wide variety of plants from not just the Caribbean, but all around the world:

They also have a great selection of (somewhat) exotic animals:

Check out a waterfall

Getting to Chutes de Carbet (Carbet Falls) is a fun little drive into the heart of the island’s national park. From the parking lot, it’s about a 25 minute walk to the view of the main waterfall; ambitious hikers can trek several more hours to get to the top. We arrived after sunset however which provided for less than optimal photo conditions, though I did get this shot from the parking lot:

waterf

Stay at a fun hostel

In particular, the E. Gwada (Creole slang for Guadeloupe) hostel in Le Gosier has been popular among budget travelers for quite a while, and with good reason. The prices can’t be beat ($56/night for a private room with two beds), the staff is friendly, it attracts a (mostly) fun group of fellow travelers to socialize with, the WiFi is fast enough, and the bar isn’t hesitant to give out free drinks.

Sample French/Creole restaurants

The restaurants here tend to mostly be French with a Creole influence. As this is a Caribbean island, seafood also figures heavily into the cuisine, so make sure try to fish when you have the chance. They also do a local take on chicken curry, which is quite delicious and spicy, but doesn’t look nearly as appealing on camera:

Also, the French really really like pizza, but have interesting toppings for it like honey and goat cheese. We arrived very late to our hostel the first night and this was the only place nearby that was open:

Relax in hot springs

If you see “Bains Chauds” (hot springs), pull over and follow the signs. While the water may not be super hot depending on the tide, it’s definitely a great way to relax by the ocean:

Eat at a boulangerie

While it may feel like the Caribbean, you still are in France after all, which means the pastries are second to none. Nothing like a nice pain au chocolat as a road trip snack:

Drive stick shift

You’ll save quite a lot of money on car rentals if you know how to drive stick shift going in (or take the time to learn in advance). It’s a lot more fun winding around the many scenic curves of the main highways that outline the island when you’re in control if your car’s gears. Just don’t make the same mistake I did and get a car with an underpowered engine that will give you trouble getting up hills:

car

Speak French

Guadeloupe is an overseas territory of France, and while (like most of the Caribbean) most people working in tourism can speak enough English to get by, you’ll be able to have far more in-depth conversations with locals if you know a little bit of French. As most guests here are coming from mainland France, the island is a little less bilingual than others. While the Google Translate app will help immensely, it still might help to learn French to assist with pronunciations. As it is also a free offline download, the Haitian-Creole translator will also be useful for those limited times when there are signs in Creole rather than French. Also, even the most mundane things sound fancier in French:

fancy

Bonus: We didn’t get to check it out, but Pointe des Chateaux, at the very eastern end of the island came highly recommended.

 

Have more questions? Have your own experience to share? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

 

 

“Don’t all those credit cards hurt your credit score?” and other credit card FAQs

“Don’t all those credit cards hurt your credit score?” and other credit card FAQs

As you may know or have figured out, I tend to use credit cards (especially signup bonuses) to earn most of my frequent flyer miles and points, earning close to a million since I started a little more than two years ago. Currently, I have 36 cards open (not so beautifully styled in the image above), though this number is constantly changing depending on my latest strategy.

Credit cards are one of my favorite things to talk about, and I’m going to be spending the next few weeks talking about the various cards on the market and what makes sense to get, but I thought I’d first answer some questions I commonly get asked having so many credit cards.

“Don’t all those credit cards hurt your credit score?”

Not if you’re responsible. While the exact calculations are secret, FICO has disclosed the following approximations which go into calculating your credit score:

ce_FICO-Score-chart

Photo courtesy of myfico.com

As you can see, “Payment History” is the most important. This is something that’s completely in your control, and is critically important. One late payment of 30 days or more can stay on your credit report for up to seven years, and can significantly affect your ability to obtain new credit (that being said, if you feel a late payment has been erroneously reported, you can file a dispute to have it removed). I have all of my cards set up to automatically deduct the new balance in full from my checking account every month so that I never have to worry about missed payments.

The next most important factor is “Amounts Owed.” For this, a calculation is performed to obtain what is known as your Debt-to-Income ratio, or DTI. This is a calculation of the balances on all your cards divided by the total credit on all your cards, the lower it is, the better it is for your score.. This is also where having many cards (or a few cards with very high limits) can be useful in raising your credit score. Because of all of the cards I have, my total credit available is somewhere in the range of $150,000. This means that if I’m carrying $1,000 worth of balances on my cards, my DTI is less than 1%. However, if you only have one card and it has a $5,000 limit, then you would have a DTI of 20%, lowering your credit score.

Next is length of credit history. This is the average length of credit card account. People like me tend to be a little lower here, since we are constantly opening up new accounts, though it is important to always keep your oldest accounts open, and never to cancel a card with no annual fee.

New credit is probably my worst area on this spectrum, as every time I apply for a new credit card, a hard inquiry is made on my report, causing my score to decrease slightly. Luckily, this is only worth 10%

The last one, credit mix, is also one of my generally lower-scoring areas. This measures the type of loans you have, and a more diverse set will yield a higher score. As credit cards represent my only type of “loans”, I generally don’t do well here. Again though, luckily it’s only 10%!

So as you can see, two-thirds of your credit score is based off of making your payments on time, and keeping your balances low in relation to total credit. Opening up lots of credit cards will not have an effect on these as long as you use your credit responsibly!

“So as long as I have a high credit score, I can get approved for any loan I want, even if I have a lot of credit card applications, right?”

No. Credit score is only one of several factors lenders use in determining whether to offer you a loan. No matter how good your credit score is, it’s going to look suspicious to a lender if you’ve made lots of recent applications for credit. The conventional wisdom says to avoid opening up any new credit cards for at least a year if you anticipate needing a loan for a large purchase like buying a house.

“But you must pay so much in annual fees! Is it really worth it?”

Actually, I don’t. I pay $100 in annual fees on my Citi Prestige card in order to make the points earned from it worth up to 60% more, and to get lounge access to over 700 lounges, as well as $85 on my Marriott Rewards card to get a free hotel night every year worth over twice that.

For almost any other card, there usually is no annual fee the first year, and then a fee the next year.  When the annual fee hits the following year, I’ll first try to call up the issuer and ask them to waive the fee again (usually doesn’t work, but never hurts to try), and if that doesn’t work, I’ll then usually downgrade to another card with the same issuer that has no annual fee, allowing me to retain my credit history with that issuer (and avoid damaging my credit score). In certain situations where I can’t do this and the annual fee isn’t worth it, I will then cancel.

“Should I just cancel the card after the bonus hits?”

No. It doesn’t cost you anything to hold on to the card until the annual fee hits the next year, so you might as well keep it at least until the annual fee hits in order to increase your length of credit. The one exception to this might be cards with very high annual fees not waived the first year and very high bonuses, assuming the issuer will prorate the remainder of your annual fee. The one that comes to mind is the 100,000-point offer for the American Express Platinum, which also comes with a $450 fee the first year. If you hypothetically spend enough to hit this bonus in two months and don’t think the other benefits justify the high annual fee, you can cancel this card and receive $375 back (having only used it for one-sixth of a year).

“Your wallet must be huge! How do you lug all of those cards around!”

I don’t. Most cards are only good for the signup bonus; the ones I carry around with me on a daily basis are either ones on which I’m working towards a signup bonus, or ones that offer bonus rewards on certain categories (like dining out, gas, groceries, etc.)

“So what do you do with the rest of them?”

When I’m not creating beautiful collages for blog posts, I keep them in a drawer by my bed (and also use Google Sheets to store all the information so that I can still make an online purchase with one if I don’t have it physically with me).

“I have a crappy credit card with no good benefits that I opened up my freshman year of college which I never use anymore. Can I just get rid of it?”

Don’t. Given how important length of credit history is to your score, it’s costing you nothing to keep it open (while slowly improving your credit score each additional month it’s open), and will hurt your credit score severely if you close it (as your average age of account will become much younger).

“I’m going to be needing to put a large purchase on a card next month that I’ll probably pay off in 6-12 months. What’s a good card that I can open up to put this on so I can get a great bonus/rewards?”

Don’t do this. Credit card companies need to make money somehow, so it’s just not financially feasible for them to offer a card with great rewards and low interest rates. For example, there are many credit cards that offer bonuses of $400 or more after spending $3,000 in the first three months. If you plan on spending $3,000 in three months and paying it off in full at the end of each month, these are a great idea. If you’re planning on putting $3,000 on your card and paying it off progressively, these cards are a terrible idea, as they often tend to have APRs of 20% to 25%, meaning that the amount of interest you accrue on the debt would more than outweigh the bonus you receive. While I strongly strongly recommend paying off your balance in full every month, if you absolutely cannot, there are a number of 0% APR cards on the market that are better-served for this, though rewards will be minimal.

“How often should I open up new cards?”

If you’re pretty seriously into the credit card game, a general rule of thumb is to do a new round of applications every three months.  This of course varies by issuer.

“I don’t want to risk opening up new cards unless there’s a good chance I’ll be approved. Is there anything I can do in advance?”

First, check directly with the issuers to see if there are any offers you’re prequalified for. Next, use the CardMatch tool on creditcards.com to see if there are any offers you’re prequalified for.

Lastly, if you know your approximate score (which you can obtain through Credit Sesame or Credit Karma) you can use the Creditpulls tool on CardBoards to find out the scores of other people who have been approved/denied for the card you want.

“This is too much for me to handle. Can’t I just open up one credit card and stick with it?”

Of course. It’s just a matter of if you want to be earning several hundred dollars in rewards a year (as you might with a 2% cashback credit card that you spent $1,000/month on), or several thousand (as you might if you’re constantly opening credit cards with signup bonuses worth several hundred).

“I don’t live in the US; is this really worth my time?”

Probably not. Credit card signup bonuses are far higher in the US than anywhere else in the world, primarily due to most Americans not being able to manage their debt well, meaning credit card companies are able to use those profits to offer extremely lucrative signup bonuses to those who do manage their debt well. This does present a bit of a moral quandary (i.e. is it wrong to cheer for people to manage their debt poorly so that signup bonuses stay high), but this is neither the time nor place to discuss this.

“What card should I open up in order to maximize X?”

Stay tuned.

 

 

How to go to Cuba (if you’re an American citizen)

How to go to Cuba (if you’re an American citizen)

Even before President Obama announced the gradual lifting of the travel ban with Cuba, it had already been high on my list of places to see. Once this news was announced, it became even more of a priority to get there as soon as I could, before it would likely be forever changed by American tourism.

As part of my around-the-world trip last summer, I did indeed make it to Cuba, and it was everything I hoped for – a beautiful country tragically stuck in the past behind an outdated authoritarian government, but so rich in culture, with incredibly friendly people, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, a vibrant music scene, and of course many gorgeous old cars.

But while I eventually plan to write about my trip itself, and all of the things to do in Cuba, this post is going to more focus on how to go to Cuba, as both before and after Obama’s announcement, there has been a fair amount of confusion about the process. (And if you’re visiting this blog from another country, you’re welcome to follow along, but the below might not be of much use to you).

First though, let me caution that if you’re just looking for a Caribbean getaway on the beach where you can sip mojitos all-day at an all-inclusive resort, I would not recommend going to Cuba, as you can do the same thing for far cheaper and with less logistical hassles at any number of Caribbean islands on better terms with the US (and to clarify, I don’t have anything against these types of vacations; I have done them in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica and had tons of fun). In short, you should be going to Cuba if you’re more curious to experience a completely different culture than you’ve ever been to.

However, as general tourism is still not legal, there are still a few steps to take first. So what are the different ways to go?

First, there is what’s known as a people-to-people tour. This is by far the easiest way to go, as everything is taken care of, but also the most expensive, with costs running around $5,000 for a one-week tour, with everything included except getting to Miami (or wherever you’re flying in from). Before Obama’s announcement, this was the only legal way for most people to go to Cuba, and the announcement did not directly affect people to people tours, though it’s expected that it might cause a decline in their popularity with there now being cheaper ways to go.  Only a handful of tour operators have a license to operate these kinds of tours, and they explicitly have to be for “cultural or educational reasons” (i.e. not tourism). I’m not going to spend any more time getting into these, as a $5,000 one-week tour doesn’t really have a place on a budget travel blog, but you’re more than welcome to do further research on your own if this for some reason interests you.

The second way, which was the most impacted by Obama’s announcement, is to go under  a general license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). While this used to be a very onerous, drawn out application process, now all one needs to do is claim that they are going under one of the following categories (from the OFAC web site):

 

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and professional meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
  • Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing Department of Commerce regulations and guidelines with respect to Cuba or engaged in by U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign firms

 

What’s unclear, however, is how (if at all), this will be enforced. While I haven’t seen reports of people facing problems for their trip not complying with their stated reason, it would probably be a good idea to keep as much documentation as possible that supports your reason. If you are feeling super paranoid however, you can still go through the formal application process.

The last way is to just go. Contrary to popular belief, the restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba come 100% from the American side. Cuba has no problem with Americans visiting, and will welcome them with open arms (well, almost. I was sternly instructed at immigration to not smile for my picture). While a Cuba passport stamp (if they even stamp it) theoretically could present issues when re-entering America, this is rare provided no import laws are being broken, and can be totally avoided if you have Global Entry. In this case, all you have to do is find a flight (albeit through a third contry).

 

Finding nonstop flights from the US

There used to be very limited charter service to Cuba from US airports (mostly Miami) prior to Obama’s announcement; since the announcement, far more airlines have added flights, as you can now fly there nonstop from as far away as Los Angeles. Given that the Havana Airport website isn’t very up-to-date, I instead recommend using Wikipedia for the most up-to-date list of charter flights. These are not bookable with the airline though; instead, a small number of other charter companies (ABC Charters is one of the most popular ones) handle the booking; if you are interested in a particular route, the airline will generally be able to redirect you to the appropriate authority to contact. You will have to sign an affidavit that you are going for one of the stated reasons.

That being said, charter flights tend to be quite expensive for the distance; roundtrip airfare from Miami to Havana (less than 100 miles each way) can run around $500-$600, while other destinations can be as high as $800-$900, and often only run a few times a week. (There are also a few charter flights into cities other than Havana, such as Santiago, but these tend to be even more expensive).

On top of that, you won’t earn any miles on these flights. Instead, you might be better off…

Finding flights with connections from the US

While I know in the past I’ve touted the benefits of ITA Matrix, it still does not allow you to search for flights to Havana from the US. For this, you are probably better off using KAYAK, which recently started to allow these searches (though you will have to book with the airline directly).

And while you will save a little money as well as be able to earn frequent flyer miles, it still won’t be cheap. Casually at dates over the next few months on KAYAK, the lowest I saw was a crazy itinerary for $689 which it found on Skypicker (which I also wrote about earlier) requiring me to fly from San Francisco to Denver on Virgin America, Denver to Cancun on Frontier, then Cancun to Havana on Interjet. If I were only flying as far as Cancun, it would be $300 less.

While I’ve found that KAYAK is the best search engine for flights to Cuba, it still isn’t perfect, and therefore if you have time, you might want to play around yourself with finding flights to airports near Havana (Cancun is a popular departure point), and then separately searching for flights between that airport and Havana.

If you have frequent flyer miles with a non-US airline (or the ability to transfer in frequent flyer miles to a non-US airline), this is a great way to save money, and this is how I booked my flight, using Luftansa Miles and More miles to book a one-way flight from Panama to Havana, and then Avianca LifeMiles to book a one-way flight from Havana to Quito via Bogota. E-mail me if you want to know more.

So do I need to go as part of a tour?

While you legally need to be going for one of the 12 reasons specified earlier, it does not have to be as part of a tour. However, unless you’re extremely fluent in Spanish, I would highly recommend a tour, and would even recommend one if you are.

Though Cuba is an amazing place to visit, it is still very much behind the times when it comes to technology, and things you might take for granted when booking trips to other non-English speaking countries (like lodging, transport, etc.) will be much tougher here, given the almost complete lack of internet access. Going with a local bilingual tour guide will take care of all these hassles. Furthermore, if you ever know anyone who’s come back from Cuba talking about how the food is terrible, it’s likely because they only at at the awful state-owned restaurants. Instead, you’ll want to make sure you eat at the private-owned paladars (in people’s homes), but the good ones can often be hard to find (such as knowing to pull off the highway at a certain kilometer marking), and a local guide will help you avoid being ripped off.

I would strongly strongly recommend Cuban Adventures, which offer 8-day tours including transport and lodging for just over $600 (plus tips to guides). It’s a budget tour where you’ll be staying in people’s houses and traveling by van, but hopefully you can put aside your needs for luxury for just a week. My guide spoke perfect English and Spanish, and I learned quite a lot about Cuban culture that I never would have known if I were on my own. If you mention that I referred you, you can also get a discount. The featured photo in the post was taken at a beachside barbecue that our guide organized for us where he invited his friends to cook fresh fish and play music for us; it really felt like I was seeing the country with a friend, rather than on a tour.

Lodging

As I mentioned earlier, I booked a tour group that took care of all this for me. However, if you are doing it yourself, you’ll want to stay in casa particulares (or people’s houses). Unfortunately, there is no centralized portal for listings; you will have to do some research on Google to find them and contact them directly. Airbnb has recently expanded into Cuba, but they tend to be far more expensive. You can of course book with some of the nicer hotels too, but unless you’re one of those people who always needs the finest things in life, I would recommend staying at someone’s home.

Getting Around

Again, as I booked through a tour company, I didn’t need to worry about this. Car rental tends to be very expensive in Cuba, and bus service might be a better option if you have reasonably good Spanish. While I generally would not recommend this in most countries, the hitchhiking culture in Cuba is very strong and extremely safe, and there are even people hired by the government to help find rides for hitchhikers in need.

 

Money

Cuba has two currencies in effect: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is pegged to the US dollar at 1:1, and is primarily used by tourists (and accepted at tourist-friendly places), and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is primarily used by locals and roughly runs roughly 25:1 against the dollar. While you might be able to politely ask for, trade for, or maybe buy CUPs from locals, non-residents can only legally obtain CUCs.

While this hopefully will change soon, American debit cards are generally not accepted at Cuban ATMs, so you’ll need to exchange money upon arrival. Given that there is an automatic 10% fee added when converting US dollars, you will save money by bringing a foreign currency in and then exchanging that money (if you’re transiting a third country, pull out money at an ATM at that country’s airport). And as you likely will not have any access to your bank account or credit cards while you’re there, be conservative and bring more money than you need, as once you have exchanged all the money you’ve brought, you will not be able to get more money.

Visas

All you will need to enter Cuba is a tourist visa that you should be able to purchase from your airline for $20 USD. Note that you will also need to pay $25 CUCs as a departure tax.

Cellphones

Won’t work here (yet), sorry

Internet

Occasionally, you can get internet using the Wi-Fi from very nice hotels, but for the most part, you’re going to be relegated to paying $6-$9 an hour at internet cafes. In other words, prepare for some time without it.

 

 

As I mentioned, this post is only meant to be about the logistical issues in getting to Cuba, not a guide to what to do in Cuba, which I’ll post about later.

 

Other questions? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments.